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3 festival films reveal life's secrets

TORONTO -- It was the opening weekend of the 25th anniversary Toronto Film Festival, the summer was over, and it was safe for the good movies to open again. Summer is the season devoted to the mindless feeding of our base desires for low entertainment. Autumn is when we get new three-ring binders and iron our chinos and go back to school. Something ineffable in the first cool day of September makes us think deeper thoughts and nurture our better natures. This passes, but for a time we feel virtuous and want to go to movies that will reveal the secrets of life.

Three movies in that category played here Friday, one at its world premiere. Well, actually, more like 100 movies opened, but I have just arrived and the festival is mostly ahead of me. These are the three I have seen. Each is magical in its own way.

They are "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's semiautobiographical memory of being a 15-year-old rock critic for Rolling Stone magazine. And "Innocence," Paul Cox's film about two people who fell in love when they were young and discover, decades later, that they have never fallen out of love. And "Faithless," Liv Ullmann's harrowing film about divorce and infidelity, based on a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman.

"Almost Famous" is the kind of movie you savor, realizing how good it is and how sure-footed and true. It tells the story of a 15-year-old kid from San Diego named William Miller (Patrick Fugit), very earnest, very serious, carefully raised by a mother (Frances McDormand) who is both new age and old-fashioned. He lives and breathes rock 'n' roll. And through a series of misunderstandings and lucky breaks, he finds himself assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the tour of Stillwater, invariably referred to as "a mid-level rock band." He bonds with the lead guitarist (Billy Crudup) and with a groupie (Kate Hudson) who defines herself as a "Band Aide," but is a sweet and good spirit. She cares about William, who is about her age, but infinitely less experienced in the strange turns of the world.

Cameron Crowe was himself a teenage Rolling Stone correspondent, and the film is autobiographical. It is also funny, profound and very observant about human nature; it never cheapens the story, never goes for the obvious ways of exploiting the material, but is about a young man finding himself and his talent. Crowe also made "Say Anything" (1989), one of the best movies ever made about teenagers, and here he shows he still remembers exactly what it is like to be a kid, and smart, and in over your head, but trusting yourself. (The movie opens Friday in Chicago.)

Paul Cox's "Innocence," from Australia, came here straight after winning the audience prize and sharing the top jury prize at the Montreal Film Festival. I think it has the potential to break out into a great popular hit. It's a love story, about teenagers who pledge themselves to each other, are parted by circumstances and wrong turns, and meet again 50 years down the road. Charles Tingwell plays a widower; he reaches out to his former love, played by Julia Blake, who has long resided in a dead marriage and now finds that their romance still burns with the hot flame of youth.

What must she do about this? Must she be conventional and respectable and resigned, or must she listen to her heart? What is crucial about this film is that it's not an exercise in Hallmark sentiment, but a realistic and uncompromised look at people who are smart and experienced - young, but not foolish, at heart. It's a tough sell, since romances involving seniors are not commercial, but everyone who sees this movie loves it, and the word of mouth is passionate.

"Faithless" is the other side of the coin, stirring the ashes of love. Liv Ullmann directed it from an Ingmar Bergman screenplay, and it is about "Bergman" (Erland Josephson), an elderly movie director who hires an actress (Lena Enore) to work with him on a screenplay. He will ask her questions, she will answer, he will think out loud, and then there are flashbacks to the scenes he evokes. In a sense, she may not be there at all; he may be talking to his own memories. He feels guilt and confusion: What really did happen in those romances and betrayals, and what really was meant by it all?

The real Bergman, now 82, has much to remember. He is one of the greatest of all directors, but his romantic life has been a minefield. He has been married five times, and although he never married Ullmann, he did have a daughter (the novelist Linn) by her. In her middle age, Ullmann has become a gifted director, and by collaborating on this material, she and Bergman have engaged in the kind of truth-seeking the movies (and life) rarely allow.

Now I plunge into the maelstrom. The press screening of every evening's gala presentation begins at 8:30 a.m., and then the screenings march toward midnight in a dozen venues, while stars and directors crowd the hotel lobbies, and there are parties on top of parties. I was invited to a midnight spaghetti supper and had to say no; when I start eating spaghetti at midnight, I get behind and never catch up. The critic at this festival is like a long-distance runner, stopping only to grab an Evian (and a Toronto bran muffin) between milestones.

But on Thursday night there was a calm before the storm. I was on the back porch of Club Lucky with Dusty and Joan Cohl. I met them 25 years ago, at Cannes, where Dusty in his cowboy hat ruled the terrace of the Carlton Hotel, and announced that he and Bill Marshall and Hank van der Kolk would start a festival in Toronto. Except for the inaugural festival, I have come every year and have seen Toronto grow into the most important film event in North America.

On this occasion, Dusty was wearing a tie. I think I also saw him wearing a tie at his daughter's wedding. Usually he wears a T-shirt. He had been honored earlier at an anniversary party before the opening night film, and now he held court with old friends. But at 11 p.m. he stood to attention and announced it was time for he and Joan to go to the opening night party - 4,000 people down by the lakefront.

We made plans to meet at a screening the next morning. He's a role model at this festival: You heedlessly launch yourself into a week of films, as if life is a festival, and there might be something great starting in 10 minutes.

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